If you prefer a hatch to a trunk, and want a vehicle that rides just a bit higher—but all those requisite rugged cues on so many crossovers and utility vehicles are turnoffs—the 2013 Toyota Venza might be one of the better vehicles to put on your shortlist.
In lieu of a Camry Wagon, the Venza occupies a middle ground somewhere between the Camry, the mid-size Highlander crossover, the more luxurious Lexus RX, and the somewhat smaller, more rugged-looking RAV4. But opposed to the Highlander or RAV4, the Venza makes absolutely no claim to the off-road trail. And while you can get third-row seating in both the Highlander and the RAV4, the Venza only has two rows of (albeit very comfortable seating)—and its mission is quite different compared to those straightforward utility wagons.
Toyota gives the Venza a mid-cycle refresh of sorts for 2013, but it's mainly one of reshuffled features and options. You'd be challenged to pick up on the design differences between the 2012 and 2013 Venza models—perhaps even at the dealership. Styling changes of the 2013 Venza are limited to some detail changes in front—new grille, new taillight design—and a new 19-inch wheel design. There are also three new colors for the Venza on the outside—Attitude Black, Cypress Pearl, and Cosmic Gray Mica—as well as one new interior shade.
What's under the hood is essentially unchanged. There are four-cylinder and V-6 models, and both are offered with a choice of front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. The base engine makes 182 horsepower from 2.4 liters, while the V-6 makes 268 hp. The mileage difference isn't all that great between the two, with four-cylinder Venzas rating up to an EPA 21 mpg city, 27 highway (or as low as 18/25 for the V-6 AWD). Both engines get the same available all-wheel drive system, configured for on-road tractability, and on V-6 models there's an available Towing Prep Package (to tow up to 3,500 pounds).
In drives of Venza models from previous model years, we've found these wagons to drive a bit more like a minivan than a sportier wagon or an SUV. You sit higher up, but in terms of ride and handling, the Venza is more carlike than most other alternatives. With soft suspension tuning and rather numb steering, it's by no means exciting to drive—and the huge 20-inch wheels add ride harshness with no handling benefit. Four-cylinder models are perfectly adequate but uninspiring, while V-6 models have a stronger, smoother character that makes it feel more like the Lexus RX 350.
The Venza's interior—and interior accommodations—continue essentially unchanged. And that means is that you get impressive space for five adults and a good amount of cargo space—as well as a near-ideal seating height that makes getting in and out especially easy. The down side, as we've noted in past model years, is that there's a bit too much hard plastic in contact with driver and passenger knees than you might expect in a vehicle that can cost well over $30,000; we're not yet certain how much those have changed in the 2013. Road noise is also an issue on coarser surfaces.
We don't expect the Venza's safety ratings to change significantly in 2013. For 2012, the Venza was an IIHS Top Safety Pick, yet it didn't fare as well in federal tests, with a three-star (out of five) rating in frontal protection.
A much-improved set of connectivity and infotainment features is really the big news for 2013. The Venza is offered in four-cylinder or V-6 form, in base LE, mid-range XLE, and top-lux Limited trims—again with the Limited model V-6-only. But each level adds some other new features for 2013. LE models get new Display Audio systems (comparable to those that made their debut in the 2013 Camry), plus a blind-spot side mirrors, puddle lamps, and outer turn signals. Venza XLE models get a memory power driver's seat, reverse-tilt outside mirrors, and navigation—in addition to Entune multi-media features. And at the top of the line, all Limited models now get LED daytime running lights plus premium 13-speaker JBL sound and an upgraded navigation system.